Summer’s clear, warm nights are perfect for stargazing. This is especially true now that many of us are spending more time social distancing in nature. To get the full picture of what’s needed to get better acquainted with the night skies, we spoke with astrophotographer and aerospace engineer Bray Falls — who also happens to have one of the coolest Instagram accounts we’ve ever seen. But first, what the heck is stargazing, anyway?
What is astronomy and stargazing?
Stargazing is just what it sounds like: simply observing the stars. But astronomy goes deeper. It’s the science of observing objects in space and the universe as a whole. It’s safe to say that for thousands of years, people have been marveling at the night sky. While most scientists say humans started officially documenting the stars using telescopes about 400 years ago, some are seeing artifacts that could put our first astronomer ancestors at almost 6,000 years into the past.
Whenever it started, we have never stopped observing, identifying and trying to make sense of the stars and our own unique position in space. Whether using the naked eye, binoculars, a telescope or any other viewing tool, the vastness of space can be alluring and enchanting…and a wonderful escape from our own backyards, where we’ve been spending a lot of time lately. Here, Falls shares five tips to make each night viewing worth the effort.
- Drive as far away as you can from city lights to avoid light pollution.
- Check the weather to make sure the sky is optimal for what you want to see.
- Use astronomy apps to know when interesting objects like the Milky Way core will be visible.
- Make sure you bring snacks and water.
- Check the weather and dress accordingly. It will likely feel colder than you expect.
Stargazing telescopes and binoculars
Falls says that using a telescope opens a whole new world, far beyond what can be seen with the naked eye. But where to start? “To make things easier, the best telescopes to look through with your eyes are reflector telescopes; these are telescopes that use mirrors instead of lenses,” he says. “These are simple to use, and will provide great views.”
Here are a few options, including reflector telescopes, that our editors have selected to get you going.
Sky-Watcher 8-Inch f/5.9 Traditional Dobsonian Telescope ($445; bhphotovideo.com)
Falls says, “If you want the most bang for your buck possible, there is no better option than the 8-inch Dobsonian telescope.”
Adorama lists the same model on its website — also backordered — but will ship it as soon as it’s back in stock.
Celestron 70mm Travel Scope ($89.95; amazon.com)
Beloved on Amazon with more than 3,000 reviews, this telescope is ideal for travel, with its own carrying case and lightweight frame. Good for beginners (especially considering the price point), it comes with two high-quality eyepieces and a 70mm objective lens.
Orion 09007 SpaceProbe Equatorial Reflector Telescope ($309.99; amazon.com)
This reflector telescope’s 5.1-inch aperture can gather lots of light for great telescopic views, and its shorter frame offers easy portability. It also comes fully assembled, with handy accessories like a finder scope, a focuser, astronomy software and more.
Orion 10015 StarBlast 4.5 Astro Reflector Telescope ($199.99; amazon.com)
Particularly great for kids, this telescope doesn’t come with the usual stand but more of a base. The good thing about that is you don’t have to worry about keeping it steady, as it can sit on your windowsill.
Orion Tritech II Field Tripod With Fluid Pan Head ($79.99; amazon.com)
“A good tripod will provide a steady view of the night sky through binoculars, and a steady mounting point for your camera to take long exposures,” says Falls.
SkyGenius Powerful Binoculars for Adults ($33.65, originally $44.99; amazon.com)
Here’s something you might not expect to hear: You don’t need a telescope to get a closer look at the night sky. As Falls explains, “Binoculars are a great, inexpensive way to improve your view of pretty much anything in the night sky. The Pleiades, the Andromeda galaxy, the Orion Nebula, the moon and Jupiter’s moon all will appear impressive in a pair of binoculars.”
What to wear while stargazing
Knee-High Compression Socks, 3-Pack ($69; comradsocks.com)
Falls says that good socks are a must-have for an evening of standing and possibly even hiking out to watch the stars. Our editors are loving these compression socks from Comrad that come in both ankle and knee-high lengths, so there’s a pair for warmer and cooler temps. They’re also designed to keep the blood flowing during long periods of standing, which can prevent pain and swelling.
Global Blank Lightweight Windbreaker With Water-Resistant Shell (starting at $29.99; amazon.com)
Falls explains that “in many parts of the world, you will get cold fast while stargazing, especially if there is wind.” This windbreaker will help keep the cool air from cutting the fun short.
Ocoopa Rechargeable Hand Warmer (starting at $25.99; amazon.com)
With standing around in cooler evening air comes cold hands. To keep them warm, try one of these rechargeable hand warmers that will last up to eight hours and can also act as a portable charger for a phone.
Muco Unisex Beanie Cap ($13.98; amazon.com)
“Stargazing is much more fun when you are comfortable, so make sure you have proper clothing,” Falls explains. Another worthy and compact addition to the gear bag is a beanie to keep your head warm as the temperature drops.
Tommy Bahama Key Isles Cargo Shorts (starting at $89.50; nordstrom.com)
“Where I live in Arizona … I have a better time in shorts,” says Falls. “It all depends on where you live, so make sure you check the weather, and keep in mind you’ll feel much colder with the sun gone.”
These shorts are from the permanent-vacation brand Tommy Bahama and have cargo pockets for storing a lens cap, phone and other small objects that are otherwise easy to lose in the dark.
Sawyer Products 20% Picaridin Insect Repellent ($8.95; amazon.com)
Another essential for a night of sky watching in warm weather is good bug repellent. This one goes on like a lotion, can last up to eight hours and is said to be safe enough for pregnant women and babies 6 months old and up — of course, it’s always best to check with your doctor or pediatrician first. Check out our guide to a bug-free summer for more ideas.
Vont ‘Spark’ LED Headlamp Flashlights, 2-Pack ($12.59, originally $13.99; amazon.com)
“If you get a headlamp with a red light mode, you can free up your hands, and the gentle red light will help preserve your night vision,” says Falls. This headlamp has seven lighting modes and an adjustable beam, and because it comes in a two-pack, you can share with a socially distanced partner, child or buddy. It’s also waterproof and the batteries will last for days, literally.
Extra Large Picnic & Outdoor Blanket ($26.99, originally $29.99; amazon.com)
A long night of looking up at the stars can be strenuous for the neck. That’s why Falls says “a nice reclining chair will greatly improve your experience. If you don’t want to deal with a chair, lying on the ground with a blanket does just fine. Personally, I prefer the blanket method.”
This blanket is waterproof, folds up and has its own built-in carrying strap.
Best stargazing and astronomy apps
SkySafari 6 Pro ($19.99, originally $39.99 for Android and iOS; skysafariastronomy.com)
There’s an app for everything, stargazing included. Falls shares that “having the right information about stargazing will make your experience 1,000 times better. I really enjoy SkySafari Pro to help show me what is going to be in the sky and when. It will even send you alerts when events like an International Space Station (ISS) transit are happening.”
This handy app also keeps you updated on the moon phase, because the moon’s fullness and brightness affect what will be visible. “If you want to see the stars, you need to plan to look on a new moon, preferably,” says Falls. He also recommends downloading a light pollution map to help locate the best viewing spots nearby.
Stellarium ($3.49 for Android and $2.99 for iOS; stellarium-labs.com)
Turn any Android or iOS phone into a planetarium without needing any extra equipment at all. Stellarium has won accolades for being a simple way to look at the stars with the naked eye. It identifies the objects in the sky that it is seeing. Zoom in on an object to see it up close and learn more about it.
Clear Outside (free for Android, iOS and Amazon devices; clearoutside.com)
Find out the moon phase, the amount of cloud cover and when the ISS is passing overhead — among many other interesting tidbits of astronomically relevant data — by downloading Clear Outside.
Star Walk 2 ($2.99 for Android, iOS and Microsoft devices; vitotechnology.com)
Star Walk 2 is another popular sky viewing app that translates what you see in the sky into decipherable constellations and objects. You do have to download various packs for additional information, which can be annoying, but many reviewers say it’s worth it.
However, there is a free Star Walk 2 version for Android users who don’t want to commit to a purchase just yet, but note that this version contains ads. With more than 250,000 downloads, the ads don’t seem to be that much of a bother. And there’s a Star Walk Kids app that simplifies and distills astronomy information for kids through a filter of a cute cartoon cow.
Polar Scope Align Pro ($2.99 for iOS; apps.apple.com)
To take stargazing more seriously, a polar scope is essential. Basically, it identifies where the poles are on our planet and figures out exactly what you’re seeing in the sky from your exact location in space and time. This app is only for iOS, so Android users tend to use PolarAligner Pro ($3.49; play.google.com).
Best books about astronomy
’50 Things to See With a Telescope’ by John A. Read ($15.26, originally $16.95; amazon.com)
This guide provides an in-depth look at viewing the night sky through a telescope in an approachable format for kids of all ages.
’National Geographic Backyard Guide to the Night Sky’ by Andrew Fazekas ($15.99, originally $24.99; amazon.com)
A bestseller for a reason, this book by nature gurus National Geographic provides everything a beginner stargazer needs to nerd out just enough while gawking through their telescope.
Guide to the Stars Map ($19.95; amazon.com)
Speaking of nerding out, this good old-fashioned star-finding dial lets you tune it to the night sky in your location on a specific date and time to discover the visible constellations overhead. Just note that it can only be used for locations between 30 and 60 degrees north latitude.
How to take pictures of the night sky
Celestron 93625 Universal 1.25-Inch Camera T-Adapter ($24.95; amazon.com)
“Just by getting a simple T-ring and T-adapter, you can hook up any kind of modern DSLR to your telescope and use it to take images,” Falls says. “Even with simple telescopes this will work really well for taking pictures of things like the moon.”
This universal adapter should do the trick.
Canon EOS 2000D Rebel T7 Kit ($374; amazon.com)
You may already have a DSLR camera that you know and love. If not, this is a solid starter set from Canon that comes with all sorts of useful extras like filters, a tripod and a memory card.
“Even a basic DSLR (with a tripod) will give you the ability to start doing astrophotography,” says Falls. “A good place to start with your camera settings is to use 30-second exposures, the smallest f-number possible on your lens and ISO 1600. If your camera has ‘live view,’ you can zoom in on a star to focus your lens. Combine this with dark skies on a moonless night and you can take some really impressive images of the Milky Way!”
Note: The prices above reflect the retailers’ listed prices at the time of publication.